Are Your Kids Making You Sick?

The morning bell rings, and 25 or so adorable five- and six-year-olds enter their bright, tidy classroom. It’s a typical day in a typical kindergarten. And the boys and girls are doing what they typically do. They select toys and felt-tip markers, then several kids stick their selections in their mouths.

One little girl rubs her eyes. Two other children wipe their drippy noses with a finger and sleeve. A boy in a yellow shirt grabs a picture book from a pretty girl with ringlets. He chews on the corner of the book. Moments later he and three other kids are reading it, taking turns flipping the pages. Each child is touching whatever traces of saliva the first child left behind, each one picking up germs.

The slight, gray-bearded man beside me, University of Arizona environmental microbiologist Chuck Gerba, my guide on this expedition, beams in delight. Just as he anticipated, this seemingly clean classroom is not as sanitary as it looks.

He should know. Dr. Gerba is what you might call a germ detective. A well-known authority on germs that make us sick, he specializes in hunting down disease-causing microbes wherever they hide. His investigations have taken him from private kitchens to public restrooms to the food-export centers of South America. He greets the discovery of bacteria, viruses and parasites with the glee most of us reserve for opening Christmas gifts. It’s no wonder his job has earned him the nickname Dr. Clean.

Some of what he’s turned up may surprise you. “Your dog got it right: drinking out of the toilet wasn’t such a bad idea.” The scientist chuckles, noting that his studies found more fecal bacteria in the average kitchen sink (from contaminated raw food washed there) than in a typical flushed toilet bowl.

In a recent test of more than 800 public areas—such as shopping malls, workplaces and day-care centers—Gerba and his colleagues discovered residues of blood, mucus, saliva and urine on many types of surfaces—elevator buttons, shopping-cart handles and escalator hand rests among them. But the places that were most contaminated? Children’s playgrounds (36 percent of surfaces tested) and day-care centers (46 percent of surfaces tested). That’s particularly bad news, because children are more susceptible than adults to the random germs that surround us all.

“They don’t have all the anti-body history that we do,” he explains. “So they’re less likely to fight off sickness.”

Dr. Gerba is attending kindergarten today at the request of Reader’s Digest. We asked him to spend some time with the Kelley family of Sarasota, Fla.—Bryan and Danielle and their two children, six-year-old T. J. and two-year-old Shannon. The Kelleys seem constantly to be passing around colds, flu and other viruses—which makes them like most families with kids.

“It’s been shown that once you have children, the number of colds per adult in the family at least doubles,” Gerba says.

But annoying sniffles are the least of it. Many microbiologists believe there has been a steady increase in the number of infections in kids that lead to intestinal and stomach upset.

Why? “It may be because children are going into day-care centers and into school at a younger age,” Gerba says. “So they’re exposed to more germs earlier on. We also take the children to large play areas, like playgrounds at fast-food restaurants. Not to mention trips to the mall.”

So exactly what kind of germs are out there waiting for our kids? And can we minimize our children’s exposure by keeping certain surfaces clean?

We’re about to find out.

The slim, bespectacled scientist sits in a kiddie-size chair at a round kiddie-sized table at the at the back of the classroom and sets out test tubes, swabs and chemicals—his ad hoc lab. With a Q-Tip-like swab he dabs at a spot on the table’s surface. “I’m going to look for fecal bacteria, saliva, blood, mucus and a measure of general filth,” he announces as he drops the swab into a test tube.

If the liquid in the test tube turns dark in the next ten minutes, bodily fluids are present. And if bodily fluids are present, we know that germs could be present too. As there are hundreds of possibilities—including viruses that cause colds, flu and diarrhea, and bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus (staph), strep and parasites—this test doesn’t look for specific microbes.

Gerba dabs again at the same spot, using a second swab, which he places in a separate tube. This test is for coliform bacteria and E. coli, both present in fecal matter. The E. coli he’s testing for does not cause disease like the strain responsible for recent outbreaks of food poisoning, but if this type is present, the other, more dangerous variety may be as well. How might bacteria from feces find its way onto these surfaces? Improper hand washing after going to the bathroom, says Gerba.

It will be about 24 hours before we’ll have the fecal-bacteria results.

As he shakes the test tubes, I scan the room. A red-headed child picks his nose, then unselfconsciously sticks the finger in his mouth as he wanders over to the supply shelves near us to select a bottle of paper paste. He handles a number of bottles before he decides on the one he wants. Gerba also watches intently, then scurries over and swabs a paste bottle, as well as several markers on the shelf.

Through the morning, as the kids sing and play, Gerba swabs the surfaces they touch most: toys, computer, play areas. He also checks a sponge on the sink where the kids wash up before lunch. “A sponge is a great area for microorganisms to grow,” Gerba says. “So life is terrific in a sponge if you’re a bacterium.”

At each desk is a water bottle with a pull-top; each is labeled with a child’s name. Gerba swabs one pull-top.

When the children leave for the cafeteria, Dr. Gerba examines the first set of test tubes. He finds the heaviest concentrations of bodily fluids on the computer mouse (the class’s favorite object), the supply shelves where paste, markers and crayons are stored, and the kids’ favorite puzzle.

But what does this mean? Could T. J. Kelley pick up a cold, flu or diarrhea from these objects? “If somebody in the classroom had it, of course,” says the germ detective. “If the surfaces are heavily contaminated with such fluids as saliva or blood, then they’re also heavily contaminated with any germs growing in those fluids.”

Soon we’re off to the playground, where T. J. and his classmates enjoy exuberant fun before class resumes. Spoilsport that he is, Gerba is right behind them, swabbing monkey bars, play tunnels and slides.

Later that afternoon we regroup outside the Kelley home. Bryan Kelley is pitching balls to T. J. and a bunch of neighborhood kids. They all use T. J.’s bat, so that’s one of the first objects Gerba swabs.

Then we head for a favorite fast-food restaurant, which has a big playroom with plastic tunnels, pens and slides. Gerba is one step behind curly-headed Shannon as she crawls through a curtain of clear vinyl streamers into a blue padded playpen. One look at the vinyl strips and Gerba knows he’s hit pay dirt. “Gross! It’s a snot shield,” he shouts, a little too enthusiastically. “Every kid pushes through this with his face and wipes his nose on it on the way in.” He also tests the blue pen behind the vinyl strips and one of the tunnels.

While kids and crew devour fried food, the swabbed samples develop. Within minutes, as Gerba guessed, we learn that the vinyl “snot shield” is the most heavily contaminated with bodily fluids. The playpen and tunnel are contaminated too. Those fries that I eagerly gobbled are suddenly not sitting so well.

The next day, at the University of South Florida lab in St. Petersburg, Dr. Gerba examines the second set of test tubes. “We’re looking for bacteria that originate in fecal material on the surfaces that we tested yesterday,” he explains. “If these bacteria are present, we’ll get a yellow color in these test tubes.” Several samples have definitely changed color.

Gerba points to the sample he took from the sponge. The fluid is very yellow, as is the sample from the classroom sink.

What other surfaces are heavily contaminated with fecal bacteria? The fast-food restaurant play area,the school playground and the pull-top from the water bottles that the children had in the classroom. Gerba grins at this last discovery. It’s clear that the school intended to minimize the spread of germs by labeling the bottles. But the plan backfired. “You have to use your fingers to close the cap. Then if bacteria gets on there, it’s going to survive a long time because the cap is moist.”

Gerba does one final test on our second set of samples, shining an ultraviolet light on the test tubes to search for E. coli, which will glow if present. He finds it in one tube, but not from a sample taken in T. J.’s classroom. It’s on the baseball bat that all the neighborhood kids shared. E. coli bacteria survive only a few hours, but if the kids didn’t wash their hands thoroughly before dinner, E. coli germs may well have spread through several homes.

Does all this mean the Kelleys have to resign themselves to constant family illness? Or do they have to become cleanliness nuts?

No, says Gerba. Danielle and Bryan—and other young parents— just need to start playing microbiology detective themselves.

“Look at your children. What are they touching all the time? Where are their contact areas? What are their favorite toys?” Gerba recommends using disinfectant on places we might not normally think of as germ hotbeds—the refrigerator door, doorknobs, toys. Three or four times a week, he says, clean and disinfect the places that the kids touch most and you’ll protect yourself from a mess of germs.

And perhaps Danielle should make suggestions to the school, based on Dr. Gerba’s findings. “The playground may be a major germ-transfer zone,” notes the scientist. “That area should probably be cleaned and disinfected on a regular basis.”

Don’t forget the classroom toys, either. Gerba points to a study in which day-care centers reduced the number of respiratory infections by 37 percent and physician visits by a third. This was accomplished by disinfecting the children’s toys, and other surfaces they regularly touched, three times a week.

His most important advice? It’s what mothers have advised for centuries: wash your hands—when you come in from outside, before meals, after handling food, after using the bathroom, and any other time you think you might have come in contact with germs. According to Dr. Clean, it’s still your first, last and best defense.


A different version of this originally appeared in Reader Digest.